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1917-1921 - War Communism

Boris Souvarine, a French Communist leader of Lenin's time, latter an opponent of the Communists, said: "What the Bolsheviks now call the "proletarian revolution" of October 1917 was an armed coup against a defenseless government, led by a military committee on behalf of a minority party. Thereupon, this "revolution from above" was imposed on the peoples of the Empire, who unquestionably desired peace, and on the peasants, who unquestionably wanted the land, but neither of whom wanted either socialism or communism."

The period of the civil war coincided with the experiment of a lightning-like and integral communization of Russia in the economic sphere. The numerous public announcements, decrees, and orders issued during the first few weeks of the new government contained a grandiose program for the political and economic transformation of Russia. They were also intended to appeal to leftist movements in the West; the outbreak of the world revolution (starting in Germany) was expected in a matter of weeks. The most important of the initial Soviet reforms are mentioned below; they are significant because they furnish a stand- ard to measure the extent to which the actual course of the Soviet governments in subsequent decades deviated from the pledges and plans of its initial era.

The first steps toward organization of a "Socialist national economy" were the decrees 7 of December 14 [1] concerning the creation of a Supreme Council of National Economy, and December 27 [14] concerning the "nationalization of banks" :

"1. The Supreme Council of National Economy is established [as an organ] attached to the Soviet of People's Commissars.

"2. The work of the Supreme Council of National Economy is to organize the national economy and state finances. . . .

"3. The Supreme Council of National Economy has the right to confiscate, requisition, sequester, and consolidate various branches of industry, commerce, and other enterprises in the field of production, distribution, and state finance.

" The "Decree on the Land" shrewdly followed the outline of reforms that had been proposed by Lenin's main adversaries, the Socialist-Revolutionaries a fact that Lenin openly acknowledged. In his effort to win the support of the peasantry and the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries, Lenin incorporated in his decree such ideas (rejected earlier by Russian Marxists) as equalitarian land tenure, "socialization" of the land, and abolition of private land property. The decree stated :

"The question of the land in its full scope can be settled only by a National Constituent Assembly.

"The most just settlement of the land question is as follows:

"1) The right of private property in land shall be abolished in perpetuity; land shall not be purchased, sold, leased, mortgaged, or otherwise alienated. All land, whether state, appanage, tsar's, monastic, church, factory, primogenitory, private, public, peasant, etc., shall be taken over without compensation and become the property of the whole people, to be used by those who cultivate it.


"2) All mineral wealth, e.g., ore, oil, coal, salt, etc., as well as forests and waters of state importance, shall be reserved for the exclusive use of the state. . . .


"7) Land tenure shall be on an equality basis, i.e., the land shall be distributed among the toilers in conformity with either the labour standard or the consumption standard, as local conditions shall warrant. There shall be absolutely no restriction as to the forms of land tenure: household, farm, communal, or co-operative, as shall be determined in each individual village. "

The decree of November 11 [October 29], introducing the eight-hour working day, was one of the very first decisions of the Council of People's Commissars: "The working time . . . should not exceed 8 working hours a day and 48 hours a week"; however, "until the end of the war" operations, the new regulation of overtime may not be applied in war industries.

Long before trade at home was taken over by the state, all foreign trade had been nationalized. The decree by the Council of People's Commissars on April 22, 1918 prescribed: All foreign trade is to be nationalized. Contracts with foreign countries and foreign commercial houses for buying or selling of all kinds of products (raw, industrial, agricultural, etc.) are to be made in the name of the Russian Republic by specially authorized organs. Aside from these organs all export and import agreements are forbidden.

The decree of April 27, 1918 abolishing the right of inheritance was a sweeping one. Inheritance both by law and by testament is abolished. After the death of the owner the property which belongs to him (movable and immovable) becomes state property of the R[ussian] S[oviet] Federative] Socialist] Republic].

In addition to these two socializing measures, "Workers' Control" [The word "control" in Russian implies less power than does the word in English; its meaning in Russian is approximately "check," "revision," "supervision." ] was introduced by the Council of People's Commissars on November 27 [14], 1917. It tended toward elimination of private enterprise.

"1. In the interests of a systematic regulation of national economy, Workers' Control is introduced in all industrial, commercial, agricultural [and similar] enterprises which are hiring people to work for them in their shops or which are giving work to take home. This control is to extend over the production, storing, buying and selling of raw materials and finished products as well as over the finances of the enterprise.

"2. The workers will exercise this control through their elected organizations, such as factory and shop committees, Soviets of elders, etc. The office employees and the technical personnel are also to have representation in these committees.


"8. The rulings of the organs of Workers' Control are binding on the owners of enterprises and can be annulled only by decisions of the higher organs of Workers' Control. "

On February 10 [January 28], 1918, the Central Executive Committee promulgated a decree annulling all state loans, both internal and external. The decree read in part: "1. All state loans made by the governments of the Russian landowners and bourgeoisie. . . . are hereby annulled (abolished) as from December 1917 ... 3. All foreign loans without exception are unconditionally annulled. "

In the first couple of years following the revolution many on the left wing of the Bolsheviks, enthused by the revolutionary events of 1917 and no doubt inspired by Lenin's State and Revolution, which restated the Marxist vision of a socialist society, saw Russia as being on the verge of communism. For them the policy that had become known as War Communism, under which money had been effectively abolished through hyper-inflation and the market replaced by direct requisitioning in accordance with the immediate needs of the war effort, was an immediate prelude to the communism that would come with the end of the civil war and the spread of the revolution to the rest of Europe.

Both Lenin and Trotsky rejected such views from the left of the Party. For them the policy of War Communism was little more than a set of emergency measures forced on the revolutionary government which were necessary to win the civil war and defeat armed foreign intervention. For both Lenin and Trotsky there was no immediate prospect of socialism let alone communism.

Having brought about a terrible catastrophe, starvation, and misery, the leadership, viewing the state of affairs at the end of 1920, was convinced of the necessity to retreat and make concessions to private economy. The preceding period of sweeping experiments was now officially termed "War Communism," to indicate that detrimental effects were due not to communism as such but to the "aggression" on the part of the enemies in the civil war and the intervention of the "imperialists."

The turn from "War Communism" to the "New Economic Policy" (NEP) early in 1921 was motivated by four factors: First, the peasant uprisings all over the country; second, the mutiny in Kronstadt; third, the threatening famine; and fourth, the growing disorder in the ranks of the ruling Communist party.

Up to 1929 the attitude of the Soviet government toward private peasant economy was that of acquiescence and toleration coupled with the hope of its eventual transformation into the general Soviet type of state economy. But a country in which private peasant economy predominates cannot, according to Communist theory, be termed socialist; moreover, restoration of industrial capitalism remains a constant danger under such conditions.

"... As long as we live in a small-peasant country, there is a surer economic basis for capitalism in Russia than for communism . . . we have not torn up the roots of capitalism and have not undermined the foundation, the basis of the internal enemy. The latter depends on small-scale production, and there is only one way of undermining it, namely, to place the economy of the country, including agriculture, on a new technical basis, the technical basis of modern large-scale production."

Lenin realized that abolition of a class of peasants, numbering millions, was an operation much more difficult than the destruction of a relatively small class of landlords and capitalists; a second revolution was needed if the task was to be accomplished. "Socialism means the abolition of classes. In order to abolish classes one must, firstly, overthrow the landlords and capitalists. That part of our task has been accomplished, but it is only a part, and moreover, not the most difficult part. In order to abolish classes one must, secondly, abolish the difference between workingman and peasant, one must make them all workers. This cannot be done all at once. This task is incomparably more difficult and will of necessity be a protracted one. This task cannot be accomplished by overthrowing a class. It can be solved only by the organizational reconstruction of the whole social economy, by a transition from individual, disunited, petty commodity production to a large-scale social enterprise." [V. I. Lenin, "The Work of the Council of People's Commissars," Report Delivered December 22, 1920 at the Eighth All-Russian Congress of Soviets, Selected Works (New York: International Publishers, 1943), vol. VIII, p. 276.]

Despite the compulsion and terror applied against the peasantry (before the introduction of the NEP), Lenin still envisaged the transformation of agriculture as a protracted operation : " . . . This transition must of necessity be extremely protracted. This transition may only be delayed and complicated by hasty and incautious administrative legislation. The transition can be accelerated only by affording such assistance to the peasant as will enable him to improve his whole technique of agriculture immeasurably, to reform it radically." [Lenin, "Economics and Politics in the Era of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat" (October 30, 1919), Selected Works,\o\. VIII, p. 8. ]

To the Soviet government, the most disquieting manifestation of dissatisfaction with war communism was the rebellion in March 1921 of sailors at the naval base at Kronshtadt (near Petrograd), which had earlier won renown as a bastion of the Bolshevik Revolution. Although Trotsky and the Red Army succeeded in putting down the mutiny, the rebellion signaled to the party leadership that the austere policies of war communism had to be abolished.

The NEP, introduced in 1921, had signified a truce in the Soviet war on the peasantry. Until 1928-29, Stalin, allied with the "rightist" faction, had adhered to the half-hearted toleration of individual farming, admitting that "so long as this danger [individual farming] exists there can be no serious talk of the victory of Socialist construction in our country."

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Page last modified: 26-03-2016 21:08:49 ZULU